Joseph Smith’s statement “I teach correct principles, and they govern themselves” is a truth mission leaders should understand and master as they set the tone and example of principle-centered leadership, said Elder D. Todd Christofferson at the 2021 Seminar for New Mission Leaders.
A mission can provide a foundational experience in learning how to apply gospel principles in real-life situations. And Church leaders look to mission leaders to help young missionaries mature in their ability to make decisions and act based on gospel principles, he said in his address given Friday, June 25, in the Conference Center Theater and livestreamed to the 109 new mission leader couples participating remotely.
“A mission should be an extended exercise in setting goals, developing a reasonable plan to meet those goals, and accepting responsibility for outcomes, including adjusting plans as needed. It is easy to see that developing these skills and abilities can contribute to a missionary’s future Church service and his or her success in life. More immediately, it will contribute significantly to a rewarding mission.”
Elder Christofferson cited several examples of how missionaries can learn to apply gospel principles, using “commandments,” “standards” and “principles” interchangeably.
One gospel principle important in missionary service is found in Doctrine and Covenants 58:26-28, where the Lord says “it is not meet that I should command in all things” and that individuals should “do many things of their own free will” as “agents unto themselves.”
Likewise, Elder Christofferson said, it is not good or appropriate that a mission leader should command in all things. “That would be leadership by rules rather than by principles. If you have a rule for everything, you are helping create slothful and unwise servants.”
A second principle is teaching by the Spirit (see Doctrine and Covenants 50:13-14). To help missionaries learn and apply it, mission leaders can teach how one obtains the Spirit as well as caution against behaviors that cause one to lose the Spirit.
Another principle is to avoid temptation, and when it can’t be avoided to resist it, said Elder Christofferson, quoting Nephi’s statement regarding holding fast to the rod of iron so that “neither could the temptations and the fiery darts of the adversary overpower them unto blindness” (1 Nephi 15:23-24).
“Interestingly, this is a principle that interacts well with rules — the few, basic rules established for all missions, such as always being with your companion,” he said. “Equally important are rules that a missionary creates for himself or herself as an application of principle to his or her unique personality and circumstances.”
An additional principle is that of diligence or consecration, with the Apostle using several scriptures in the Doctrine and Covenants and the Book of Mormon to avoid idleness and to do things in wisdom, order and diligence.
Without a commitment to true principles and an understanding of how to apply principles in decision-making, one can easily make serious mistakes in life, said Elder Christofferson. Early in his legal career as a law clerk to Judge John J. Sirica, he had a front-row seat to the unfolding Watergate scandal in the early 1970s. The coverup of clandestine and illegal activities and obstruction of the investigation led to the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon.
“I asked myself at the time, ‘What would keep me from similar errors if I felt intense pressure for whatever reason to hide the truth or to mislead?’” recalled Elder Christofferson, adding “I concluded that my safety lay in never making an exception, never stepping off the rock of integrity, even for a moment.”
He said he sees a trend in governments and societies toward more and more rules and regulations, some coming from a desire to exert power and authority over others.
“But in many cases, I believe this trend arises out of leaders’ desperation to maintain order and security in society when people will not control themselves. Nevertheless, as you know, there can never be enough rules — and never enough policemen to enforce them — if people won’t govern themselves at least to some degree.
“As with society,” he continued, “so with the Church and the individual — we will go off track sooner or later if we do not internalize and learn to live by gospel principles.”
Elder Christofferson emphasized that the Church and its leaders are not against rules, per se. “Some rules are essential. In fact, some rules are needed to implement correct principles. But we want no more than we truly need.”
One drawback of over-reliance on rules in leadership is that it demoralizes young missionary leaders, he said. “Instead of learning to honor the trust placed in them, to lead and lift others and to be accountable for outcomes, they become little more than enforcers of rules.”
Even more critical is the effect upon individual missionaries who could learn to transfer their responsibility for choices and conduct to the rule-maker — in this case, to the mission leaders, Elder Christofferson said.
“You would not have helped him or her learn to act, only to be acted upon. In those circumstances, no one should be surprised if upon returning home an elder, for example, reverts to old patterns and yields to influences and people around him rather than assuming responsibility and charting a better course for himself.
“If a returned missionary is not more devoted and sure-footed in pursuing the covenant path than before his or her mission, we have failed in something very important.”
Elder Christofferson added that there is nothing wrong with using examples — by video, role play or other means — to help missionaries learn the art of principle-based decision-making.
“Of course, no example for your missionaries will match what they observe in you,” he said. “I’m not ignoring the Savior’s perfect example; I am assuming it is His example that they will see in you. Much like the Savior, you can determine what to critique and what to let go; you can correct without casting off; and you can turn many questions and problems back to the missionary with the assurance, ‘You’ll figure it out, but if, like Peter, you start to sink, I’m here to help.’
“You can teach the what and the why while leaving to the missionary most of the how. You can offer trust.”
Elder Christofferson listed some of the Savior’s leadership characteristics that mission leaders have developed and can further cultivate — He governed Himself, He led out, He prepared His followers, He oversaw His followers’ performance, He judged righteously, and He honored relationships.
“Out of all this we want and need self-disciplined disciples of Christ who are enthusiastic about the work, obedient to rules yet guided by principles, who have magnified their one, two, or five talents, as the case may be, and who are prepared to receive more.”